Publisher: SquareSoft and Distributed by: Disney Interactive
Rated: E for Everyone
Release Date: March 28, 2002
Platform: Playstation 2
Genre(s): Action role-playing, platform
ESRB Rating: E for Everyone
No matter what, you ask people about Kingdom Hearts, you’ll probably get the same several adjectives; convoluted, confusing, cheesy. It’s not hard to see the fault in that; Kingdom Hearts can be a very difficult timeline to follow due to the continual addition of new enemies and non-linear storytelling. However, one of the things that I love about the Kingdom Hearts series are the three constant themes within each entry; the strength of friendship, character, and courage through adversity. If you look at the series in a metaphorical perspective, you can see that this is a story of the internal struggle between good and evil (aka light vs dark). Simply put, Kingdom Hearts is a series that’s easy to follow if you don’t take it literally.
Kingdom Hearts was also, for me personally, one of the few games to successfully merge two completely opposite franchises together for an interesting video game universe. Honestly, before the game skyrocketed to universal love and acclaim in 2002, no one would have ever thought to pair Disney and SquareSoft’s (now SquareEnix) titular Final Fantasy series together into something kids and adults could enjoy. This was a game that was accessible for kids new to gaming and RPGs, and for adults to enjoy a lighter, colorful game reminiscent of the famed JRPG series. Furthermore, the game was able to accomplish bridging together both Eastern and Western storytelling tropes together to provide a story that was clear, concise and coherent.
For me, as a reviewer, this game has accomplished so much that it has to be in the Last Token Gaming Hall of Fame. Is it perfect? Not by a longshot; the camera oftentimes serves as an enemy more than an ally, Donald and Goofy’s A.I. often have you babysitting them to the point where you wonder if it’d be better to leave them knocked out in battle than save them, and the dialogue can be very cheesy sometimes. However, once you get past those issues, you’ll find at its core a touching, endearing tale about 3 friends doing whatever they can to stay together while overcoming darkness.
There’s an evil awakening, and it has to be stopped
The Heartless, an evil entity, are swallowing worlds in the universe and only continue to grow. King Mickey sets off on a quest to find the source of the Heartless to stop them from spreading more. He’s also sent his two most trusted knights, Donald and Goofy, to find the “Key” that can stop them from consuming the whole universe. They ship off from the Royal Palace in hopes of finding the Key wielder as soon as possible.
Meanwhile, three friends named Sora, Riku and Kairi are hanging out together dreaming of sailing off their island to explore the unknown. One fateful night, their world is forever changed as the Heartless begin to consume their world. As the Heartless begin to overwhelm Sora, a magical Keyblade pops into his hand, allowing him to fight them off. It’s all futile though, even as he beats the main boss, as both he and the world are swallowed up by the darkness
Sora, Donald and Goofy all land up in a world called Traverse Town; Donald and Goofy on their quest to find the Key wielder, and Sora to find his friends Riku and Kairi. It is here Sora meets Leon and Yuffie, who tell him about the Keyblade he wields and what he’s been facing. Sora also runs into Donald and Goofy, who tell him they’ve been looking for him so they could continue their quest to find King Mickey. All of them agree on Sora, Donald and Goofy traveling to the other worlds in the universe to find their friends, all while stopping the Heartless from consuming the 10 remaining untouched worlds. Little do they know the adversities they face, and just how much power can be found through friendship and inner strength in the darkest of times.
More or less, Kingdom Hearts explores the power of friendship, selflessness and inner strength to overcome our own inner darkness, and this is explored through Sora and Riku as polar opposites. Sora is a kid who puts others’ problems before his and tries to help them overcome the struggles they face. This is especially true in each adventure that awaits him on every world. He also has learned to rely on his friends to overcome the fights that feel like he might be overpowered, whether it’s through Donald and Goofy or the characters he can summon. Furthermore, with his persistently bright, positive attitude, it brings out the best in anyone to help them overcome their own doubts and worries. It’s refreshing, and warm, how much of an effect Sora has on those around him.
On the opposite side of the spectrum we have Riku. Riku is one who relies on the power of darkness he has within himself to gain “true strength”. As his story progresses, we see him commanding others what to do while only looking out for his own purpose; to save Kairi and Sora. While that does seem remarkable, he puts other worlds and people at risk like the Seven Princesses of Light. Ultimately, he becomes consumed by his own darkness until the very end.
Whenever Sora and Riku do happen to run into each other, you can see just how different they are from one another. Riku constantly questions Sora on whether or not he has been looking out for his friends, while Sora tries to reason with Riku about how the journey is about more than that. It’s a simple, effective approach to storytelling that often seems lost in a world of “complex” writing.
And that’s the thing I love about the story for Kingdom Hearts: it’s so very simple and clean. The subtleties are there, but they’re not forced in to make a story feel complex and ambiguous. All of the themes are ever present and remain in the foreground of the story. The fact that it teaches the player that strength can be found in relying on friends is a beautiful idea in a real world that pushes for individual strength. The theme of friendship also shows that, no matter how far apart you are from your friends, you’re never alone. Absolutely poignant.
Kingdom Hearts also excels in melding the story of Final Fantasy characters into the various Disney worlds. For example, Cloud from Final Fantasy VII working for Hades as a merc-for-hire who’s trying to find his “light” (aka Aerith) works really well considering Cloud’s story. Seeing Tidus, Selphie and Wakka as kids in Destiny Island for helping you learn the game mechanics through combat was pretty awesome too.
Where Kingdom Hearts can falter is in pacing and in the simplicity in writing. What I mean by that is that the dialogue can feel a little too cliché or generalized. Nearly half of Sora’s lines can come off as cheesy one-liners that feel overused even if you’ve only heard them once in game. The motivation of those ruling over the Heartless feel like they get repeatedly hammered in and discussed to the point where you want to tell the writers that hearing more than a hundred times gets a little much. I understand that this is a game that is trying to cater both to adults and kids, but that doesn’t excuse the simplicity in the dialogue.
Some worlds also feel really small and bland compared to others, which lends to the complaint that some major bosses feel weak in motivation and dialogue. My biggest example for this would be Neverland; most of it takes place on Hook’s ship and Captain Hook feels like a plot pusher more than a character. Hook is easy to defeat in battle, and once you defeat him players are just about done with that world. Compare that to places like Halloweentown; there are several places to explore like Oogie Boogie’s place, and Oogie Boogie’s boss battle can be challenging and his motivations more interesting.
Pacing can feel off at times too because of the stories being told in each world. Some stories feel fast, frenetic and action-packed. Other worlds feel slower, longer and less energetic. That’s not a horrible thing, but it can throw off momentum at times…especially when a story is particularly weaker than the others. It’s a minor gripe however, as the game mostly executes the pacing well for a 40+ hour game.
The story being told in Kingdom Hearts is solid and really enjoyable compared to the game’s major glaring issue; the in-game camera.
Fighting the Heartless sucks when the Camera hates you
The biggest enemy (issue) you face in Kingdom Hearts aren’t the Heartless at all…it’s the camera. I remember the many times I tried re-adjusting the camera while trying to go for a health potion in the items menu. The targeting system can also trigger the camera to be spastic quite often, especially when you don’t lock in on an enemy. This led to the many times I relied on the “auto-target” feature to focus on the enemy I was looking to attack, which ended up getting me killed. The worst offense the camera can make is turn slowly when you’re adjusting it, resulting in attacks that the player can’t deflect or avoid. It’s not a gamebreaker in any sort of stretch, but rather a serious challenge to overcome.
My second biggest complaint for Kingdom Hearts is just how terrible Donald and Goofy are as allies. Many of the battles I fought in resulted in both of them fainting or getting in the way more than helping. For nearly half the battles I faced, I had to constantly keep asking myself the same question; heal them, or just beat the battle by myself? Towards the end of the game, I gave up trying to save them and ended up fighting most battles by myself, which made the game a lot more enjoyable. In the rare moments they stayed alive, they definitely helped make battles a lot easier to manage.
Aside from that, Kingdom Hearts plays like a standard RPG in the leveling system; at the beginning of the game, players pick which class you want to excel in (magic, strength, or defense) and which one players are least worried about. This affects how attributes are increased over time; the class players favor will increase faster than the others while the one least favored will increase slowly. Each battle completed and won earns experience to leveling up. Once you gain a new level, Sora is either given a new ability, ability points, magic points, health, or increase in attributes. Treasures hidden around the maps for each world can also lead to finding equipment to also increase attributes. There are even Keyblades, Shields or Staffs earned in tournaments or through story progression that only serve to make the trio stronger.
Kingdom Hearts excels the most in its gameplay; the action-oriented RPG style flows smoothly and plays exceptionally well. Fights can be pretty easy, or increasingly difficult as they wear on; some fights had me facing three heartless in one round, and another could have me facing 25 in five waves. It keeps you thinking on your toes and constantly adapting your play style. The enemy variation also really adds to that extra layer of difficulty; some Heartless have to be attacked from behind to deal damage, and others might be too fast to counter or block. Essentially, most of your battles rely on timing and execution which adds a nice little layer of difficulty.
For a true Kingdom Hearts experience, I’d recommend people trying Pride Mode and also facing the optional bosses players have to find. These bosses are oftentimes frustratingly challenging and require multiple battles to be able to defeat. One of my personal “favorites” (aka I despise with a passion) would have to be “Unknown” (who you can find out on your own if you want to know who that is). The battle with him was exceedingly difficult, but one based very much on timing and approach. Miss one step, and I can almost guarantee losing the battle. In the end, the gameplay is Kingdom Hearts’ greatest strength, and can keep anyone hooked in.
The worlds each have a look and sound to make them feel alive
Visually, Kingdom Hearts looks great and accomplishes having a unified look that allows each world to retain their visual identity. The colorful, animated look of Sora, Riku and Kairi blend well and allow them to feel naturally part of each world they’re in. The color scheme is varied and brings each world to life, a stark contrast to modern day games’ over reliance on “grey” or “brown” tones. Most of the Heartless, however, don’t look too formidable or intimidating. If anything, they look like plushies you could get at the Disney store or at any toy store (which, inevitably, has ended up happening). Other characters like Maleficent, Hades, or Ansem make up for the lack of intimidation from the Heartless.
Backing up the vibrancy of the art style is an amazing soundtrack composed by Yoko Shimomura; each song feels natural in its place and brings the worlds to life even more. That, and they’re catchy as hell too. Seriously, listen to “Traverse Town” and it’ll immediately get stuck in your head, let alone be distinct in sound enough to remind you of the world whenever you hear it. That’s strong music composition right there.
The voice acting is also in top form here as all of the characters bubble with their own personalities. James Woods reprising his role as Hades was fun and hilarious, Susanne Blakeslee’s Maleficent reminded me of how powerful she was in Sleeping Beauty, and hearing Hook chew out Smee brought back memories of watching Peter Pan with my parents.
Overall, the artwork, music, and voice acting create a cohesive product from two major franchises that at first glance seem worlds apart.
Why This is Hall of Fame Worthy
Kingdom Hearts, for all its issues in storytelling and horrible camera angles, is a solid entry that deserves to be in the Last Token Gaming Hall of Fame. It successfully married various franchises together into a cohesive story that’s accessible for kids and adults. The difficulty is smartly based on how hard the player wants it to be, which gives kids a chance to see what there is to love about JRPGs and for adults to continue enjoying the best of the genre. Not only that, the story is able to explore strong themes that are invaluable and timeless. Finally, it showcased what was so great about the major JRPG age that transpired from the PS1 and PS2 era. Seriously, if anyone hasn’t gotten a chance to play this game please pick up the Kingdom Hearts 1.5 HD remake and enjoy the final mix version (the one that only came out in Japan originally in the early 2000s). Kingdom Hearts is both a worthy entry into the HoF as well as into your gaming library.
Original Disney Channel commercial for the game. Oh my, this is one from the vault!